The highest functions of our brains handle the lowest form of wit, new research suggests.
An investigation by Simone Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues shows the ability to understand sarcasm depends on a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex cognitive skills in specific parts of the brain.
Dr Shamay-Tsoory, a psychologist at the University of Haifa, Israel, said: " &to=http:// english.pravda.ru/main/2002/05/15/28796.html ' target=_blank>Sarcasm is related to our ability to understand other people's mental state. It's not just a linguistic form, it's also related to social cognition."
The team recruited 41 people who had suffered mild &to=http:// english.pravda.ru/society/2005/05/03/59552.html ' target=_blank>brain damage following accidents or illness. Together with 17 healthy volunteers, the scientists checked how they understood neutral and sarcastic statements read by actors, tells the Sydney Morning Herald.
In their study, Shamay-Tsoory and her colleagues first enrolled 58 subjects -- 25 participants with prefrontal-lobe damage, 17 who were healthy and 16 who had damage to the posterior lobe of the brain.
Then they tested each person by exposing them to several "neutral" and sarcastic comments recorded by actors as part of a story. This "sarcasm meter" was designed to gauge how well the subjects could comprehend the unique kind of irony that is sarcasm.
For example, actors read phrases such as "don't work too hard" in both a neutral sense (meaning "you're a hard worker") and a sarcastic sense (meaning "you're a real slacker"). Each comment came in proper context as part of a story about, say, a worker who's sleeping or a worker who's grinding away at his job.
All the subjects understood the sarcasm except for those with damage to the prefrontal area, which is above the eye sockets and behind the forehead. And among those, people with damage to a specific area known as the ventromedial area had the most trouble deciphering sarcasm.